In the tradition of the Sunstone Symposium’s “Why I Stay” and “Pillars of My Faith,” my brothers and I decided to begin a series called “Why I Am Mormon.” Following is the first of these personal essays, written by me, Mike Barker. I hope you enjoy it.
“Lord, I Believe; Help Thou With Mine Unbelief”
I am the Young Men’s President in my ward, and I rarely wear a white shirt. Today one of my sixteen-year-old priests asked if I would help bless the sacrament; I accepted the invitation. It has been more than 10 years since I have blessed or passed the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. I went up with my copy of Fiona and Terryl Givens’ new book, The God Who Weeps, in hand so I could read it during the passing of Communion. The young man told me he would bless the bread and that I could bless the water…
I am a doubter. I am a skeptic. But I haven’t always been. I wish I could go back to when my faith was simpler. I wish I had the faith of others in my congregation and could categorically declare what they “know.” I cannot do that anymore. My relationships with my church, my ward, and my God are complicated. These relationships are often held in high tension. This week was an especially hard week for me. I wondered if I still had a place in my church community. I wondered why God was not letting me know if he was there. I prayed and prayed. No answers were coming.
Seven years ago I picked up an issue of Newsweek with a picture of a stained-glass representation of Joseph Smith’s theophany that we know as “The First Vision.” I opened it up and read about a man, Richard Bushman, who had just given a presentation on Joseph Smith to an audience that had high-ranking LDS leaders. He was worried as to how it would be received. It turned out that he had written a book, Rough Stone Rolling. I bought it. I read it. I thought, holy crap. Here was the colorful Joseph Smith that I had suspected but never knew existed. He was complicated. He was fallible. He spoke for God. He revealed new scripture. He was a polygamist.
Because Dr. Richard Bushman relied so heavily on Tod Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness that I decided to read Compton’s book. As I read I thought, holy crap. Here I learned of polyandry. This could not be of God. It caused real pain. How could Joseph lie to Emma? How could a wife of Brigham Young be left to fend for herself by God’s prophet? This could not be of God. I could never, never, never treat my wife like that. It caused real pain. I had no one I could talk to about what I was feeling. I could speak to no one about my anger. I could speak to no one about my pain. I tried to talk with my wife; she did not want to hear about Joseph’s polygamy. She, like most women I have found in the church, find it less bothersome that Brigham was a polygamist, but they don’t want to hear about Joseph’s polygamy – and especially not about his involvement in polyandry. I was alone. One day I finally told my wife, Cathy, that I was considering leaving the church. She began to listen.
I told her of my doubts, my concerns. I told her about Joseph’s money digging. I told her about the use of his brown seer stone in his receiving of the revelation that we call The Book of Mormon. I told her about Mountain Meadows Massacre. I told her about the problems with the Book of Abraham. I told her about the deep, deep, love I have for our faith tradition. I told her of the beauty of Mormon theology. I told her that I loved her. She continued to listen.
I thought that if God would just let me know that He was out there, I could hang on to my Mormonism. I prayed to God for some sign that he was real. I pleaded, I cried, I bargained, I argued, I became angry, I yelled at God – no answer.
So what now?
There are few things that I can say I “know”. I am becoming less comfortable with certainty and more comfortable with ambiguity. Doubt, I have found, is not the opposite of faith. As Dr. Phillip Barlow has articulated: “Questions are good. Doubt is not the opposite of faith, but absolute, antiseptic certainty is the opposite of faith.” I believe that. That is what I have experienced and this is why:
About five years ago I discovered podcasts. I wanted to know if Richard Bushman, a past Stake President, past Chair of the History Department at Columbia University, church patriarch, and temple sealer had been interviewed. I came across a podcast run by John Dehlin. John interviewed Dr. Bushman for five hours. Later John would interview other LDS intellectual giants such as Phillip Barlow, Gregory Prince, Carol Lynn Pearson, Joanna Brooks, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Matthew Bowman, Michael Quinn, Janna Reiss, Claudia Bushman, Kristine Haglund, Fiona & Terryl Givens, etc. Here I found people, smart people, who knew of the very human element in our LDS history and still chose to stay. As I listened, I kept notes and wrote down quotes. It helped me. I eventually found Dan Wotherspoon and his Mormon Matters podcast. I did the same as I had done with John’s podcast. On one of these podcasts, Dr. Gregory Prince said, “Own your religion, don’t borrow it. If you are to make it work for yourselves and especially if you wish to make an impact on the larger church, you have to read, think, and write deeply for the rest of your lives; Google will not get you there and neither will the blogs.” On these podcasts were people who owned their religion. I could own my religion. I could make it work.
Last December I sat in our stake center as our stake choir presented its Christmas concert. They sang Hosanna from The Lamb of God (click here to listen). Suddenly and unexpectedly, a feeling of comfort and peace came over me. God had laid his hand on my heart and let me know he was really there. Finally after all the prayers, pleading, bargaining, yelling, and arguing, God manifested Himself to me through song. I cried because that’s what Mormons do – and I am Mormon. People from the choir came up to me afterwards, almost giddy that they “had made me cry.” I have to say, they annoyed me. They did not realize that through that song, I had felt God after months and months of wrestling with him. I hear it rumored that this year the choir will perform the same song and some are “hoping they can make Brother Barker cry again.” I am annoyed. That evening, last December, was a sacred moment for me. I refuse to have it cheapened.
I worry about my daughters. I worry about my oldest who wants to go on a mission. I worry about how she will feel as younger boys tell her what to do. I worry that the rigid,narrow, dogmatism that can exist in the mission-field will crush her loving, tolerant, expansive Mormon spirit. I worry that my youngest daughter’s smile might someday turn to tears as she learns she has very little say in the decisions that are made around her at church.
My oldest daughter, who is ten years old, asked me this past summer if anyone still practices polygamy. I told her about Warren Jeffs. She did not like what he had done. I then asked her what she would think if I told her Joseph Smith had married at least one teenage girl and had married women that were already married to other men. She said it would bother her. I told her that he had indeed married women that were already married and had married teenage girls. She paused and then said. “You know, my friends and I were talking about the book I am reading, Lemony Snicket. Lemony Snicket said that ‘…everyone is like a chef salad. There are the good parts like the tomatoes and the bad parts like the onions’.” She then looked at me and said, “I guess Joseph Smith was like a chef salad. There was good stuff in him and bad stuff.”
Somewhere along the line, I began teaching the Priest Quorum in my ward. I wanted the boys to think. I would email them articles to read in preparation for my lessons. I made them work. Sometime last year, two of them came up to me after a lesson and expressed the most sincere appreciation for my lessons. They said I should start a blog.
I began to speak with my brothers about church history, about God, about apologetics, about LDS scholarship. My youngest brother, Jonathan, said I should start a blog. I laughed.
Well, last year, the three Barker brothers started a blog and here I am now.
Last year I got called to be the Young Men’s president in my ward. My bishop was aware of the real struggle I have had. He said he had been impressed because I had invited a few of the college-aged young men that were home for the summer over to my house. We watched New York Dolls and we chatted about it. We chatted about faith. I let them know that if they ever had doubts, I would listen. We ate pizza. I love those men.
My deepest desire for my teenage boys is that they may find, feel, and see the beauty of their faith. I don’t want them to leave. I don’t want them to feel the angst I have felt in my faith journey. I am a big advocate of what some have called “inoculation.” That is, let the boys know up front and from a reliable source about the stickier issues of our LDS history. The idea is that if they know about these things earlier, it will not cause a faith crisis later in life because they will be inoculated to the issue. I taught them about Joseph Smith and seer stones. I taught them about the priesthood and temple ban once imposed upon those of black African descent. I was doing it because I love them. I was met with great resistance from adults. After some thought and speaking with my bishop (who supported my efforts) and Dr. Phillip Barlow, I decided it would be best to abandon my plans of inoculation. As Dr. Barlow told me, “If people see what you are doing as damaging, then perhaps you are doing more harm than good. I think you have made the right decision to stop. And, you owe your bishop a box of chocolates.” I still need to give him that box of chocolates.
…The church service started just as the fourteen- and fifteen-year-old boys were finishing up the preparation of the Lord’s Supper. I then stood up and helped the young man next to me, Stuart, cover the Eucharist with a table cloth. As I did so, I thought of something I heard for the first time on a podcast I participated in. Some have articulated the idea that the table represents the bed upon which Jesus was laid in the tomb. The cloth we use to cover the sacramental emblems represent his shroud. I paused as I thought of myself taking on the role of Mary and the other women preparing Christ’s body for burial. What a powerful image for me.
The formalities of an LDS worship service were done. The sacramental hymn was sung as Stuart and I broke the bread. As I looked down at the tray and my hands breaking bread, my mind went back two thousand years. I pictured Jesus’ hands breaking bread for his disciples; my hands had become His. A feeling of peace and love came over me. I pondered how the bread I was breaking represented Christ’s body that was broken for us. I thought how I wished my daughters could some day experience what I was experiencing; I wish they could break the bread and bless it. It was good that I was there with Stuart.
The deacons passed the bread and brought it back to the sacrament table. Stuart and I covered the empty bread trays and we uncovered the water. I kneeled down and pulled out the microphone with the written words of the prescribed sacramental prayer. I read it out loud earnestly; thought about what I was reading. Again, I thought of Jesus declaring that the wine of the Passover now represented his blood that he was going to spill for those that were with him that Passover evening and for all of humanity. I stood up and passed the water trays to the deacons that I claim as my own; I am their Young Men’s leader. I pictured them as Jesus’ Twelve Apostles as I gave them the trays of water. A feeling of peace and love came over me. I wished my daughters could someday experience what I was experiencing; I wish they could bless the water and hand the trays to the deacons.
Between the passing of the bread and the water, I picked up Terryl and Fiona Givens’ book, The God Who Weeps. I read, “Soberingly, if we are co-eternal with God, then it is not God’s creation of the human out of nothing that defines our essential relationship to Him. It is His freely made choice to inaugurate and sustain loving relationships, and our choice to reciprocate, that are at the core of our relationship to the Divine.” Today God was showing me his love that he freely gives as I sat there pondering the Eucharist and what Christ has done for me.
Doubt, Evidence, and Choice
Freely chosen belief cannot be coerced upon us by evidence. I have come to learn that there must be good evidence for belief as well as disbelief. If there is not, then belief cannot truly be a free choice. “But belief itself is a choice I wrestle with God for, somewhere in a dark swampland, my inner landscape; where not only God’s credibility, but my own are at stake” (Wendy Ulrich). I believe because I choose to believe. Just as God freely chooses to “sustain a loving relationship” with me, I freely choose to reciprocate that relationship. God does not tolerate me, he loves me. I do not tolerate God, I love God. Because of that love, I am called upon, not to tolerate others, but to love them; I pray that those with whom I share the pews at church will reciprocate that love towards me. It is within my Mormon faith, a faith that has been given to me by my parents, that I have found and felt God’s infinite love.
So what do I believe? Can I declare that I truly “know” anything of religious significance? I know God is infinitely good. He is the locus of goodness. I know I am a child of Heavenly Parents. I know that Jesus of Nazareth was not only a real historical figure, but He is exactly what he so radically declared he was: He is the Son of God; He was and is the promised Messiah. He suffered, died on a cross, and resurrected three days later. I believe that through Him, I can become like our God – whatever that means. I believe Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. I believe Joseph Smith was like a chef salad; he was truly flawed. I believe that God can only do that which is logically possible. He cannot make a square circle. He cannot make a married bachelor. He cannot force people to freely choose to love and follow him. Nonetheless, he chooses to work with us imperfect beings. He chooses to honor our agency. He allows us to screw up – often in quite horrible ways. I believe the Book of Mormon is good. I believe it is an historical record of an ancient people. I believe that within the LDS church, real priesthood power exists that allows us to enter into a covenantal relationship with our God. I believe that our relationship with God can transform us. I believe that the LDS church and those that adhere to its tenets can change. I believe that God is bigger than the LDS church. I also believe in the universalistic tenets of Mormonism, and I willingly hold those in tension with its exclusive claims. I really, really hope that my relationship with my wife, my daughters, and eventually my grandchildren will continue after this life. Oh, how I hope that is true.
Why am I Mormon? I am Mormon because I willingly – and with my eyes, mind, and heart fully open – choose to be Mormon. I am Mormon because I doubt. I am Mormon because I hope. I am Mormon because I believe. I am Mormon because I know. I am Mormon because I choose to wrestle with God in my “dark night of the soul”. I am Mormon because I choose to wrestle with the LDS church. I choose to be Mormon because it is within Mormonism that I have found God. “It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt” (Fyodor Dostoevsky).